There are many projects to get involved with the DFN from orbital modelling to hardware design to meteorite analysis. As part of the Space Science and Technology Centre, projects are highly multi-disciplinary and are suitable for students with backgrounds in physics, astronomy, geophysics, geology, data science, maths and engineering.

Mission concept: cubesat fleet for triangulating meteors from orbit

This mission concept will explore how to build a space mission to detect meteors from multiple cubesats in orbit, both around the Earth and Mars. 2+ station meteor observation is routinely done on Earth from the ground, but doing this from orbit presents significant issues. The student can steer the project depending on interest, by tackling the flying in formation problem, comparing imaging payload options, or find innovative solution to do data processing in orbit (image credit: NASA).

Background preferred: physics or engineering.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix

Locating falling meteorites with weather radars

When meteoroids impact the Earth's atmosphere and survive as meteorites, they are invisible to optical cameras in the last 20-30 km before reaching the ground, because they fly below the ablation limit above which they emit light: this is the "dark flight" phase. There has been some success in the USA in locating the meteorites in dark flight with weather radars, drastically reducing the search area on the ground. By cross-matching Desert Fireball Network meteorite falls and weather radar data, this project will explore how this can be done with Australian weather radar systems. Previous knowlegde in meteorite or radar data is not necessary, the student will learn a bit about both during the project, as well as some data science techniques. (image credit: Marc Fries, PSI)

Background preferred: physics or engineering, basic coding skills.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix
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Strengths of meteoroids in the upper atmosphere

Recent space missions to asteroids have gathered detailed information not just on the composition of these bodies, but also on their material properties – e.g. their strength, and whether they are a rubble pile or a single monolithic rock. But we know very little about the strength of small objects in the metre to 10s metre class. This project will look at the breakup of meteoroids in our atmosphere to calculate the bulk strengths of these objects, be it by seismic, infrasound or photometry. It will also look at the origins of this material to determine if there is a correlation between strengths and any specific orbits or regions of the Solar System, or specific asteroids and their families. The results will inform our understanding of the asteroid hazard (do small objects all generate airburst ‘Tunguska-like’ explosions), the lifetime of debris in the inner Solar System, and how we date the ages of planetary surfaces.

Background preferred: astronomy, geophysics, or physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom

Dangerous Asteroid Streams

Meteor showers are common enough and give us a spectacular show at certain times of the year. These objects are the trails of dust from comets travelling around our solar system. As they got left behind by their parent body so recently, we can link these trails to their comet. For larger Near-Earth Objects, million of years of orbital evolution have put a smokescreen on the meteoroid/parent body connection. The Global Fireball Observatory continuously scans large areas of the night sky, searching for fireballs from asteroidal material. It has the largest global dataset of this material. By statistically analysing the orbital history of meteoroids observed by the GFO, this project will aim to determine if there are any links between impacting material. Which asteroids create the most Near-Earth Objects that end up threatening the Earth? This will be put in context with the types of meteorites found on Earth, and the results of space missions visiting asteroids like JAXA's Hayabusa spacecrafts and NASA's OSIRIS-REx.

Background preferred: data science, astronomy, physics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix

Large scale searches for astronomical transients

Whether looking for meteorite or tracking satellites, the DFN continuously scans large areas of the night sky, compiling a unique archive of the entire visible sky at an unmatched cadence. At any point the DFN is probing 20,000° of sky down to vmag=8 (30 second cadence), and 2,500° down to vmag=15 (10 second cadence). This opens up a new area in time-domain astronomy, and allows detection of the fastest optical transient phenomenas. This PhD project will focus on the development of a data pipeline that will open up these facilities for astronomical research, and then an exploration of those new research possibilities. In building the software that will identify non-local astronomical anomalies (supernovae, flaring stars, gravitational waves counterparts, exoplanets) the student will: have access to all of the DFN output; the ability to test computational approaches on a lab-based system and upload new iterations of software remotely to deployed observatories; and the full 6-year dataset from the entire network (~2000TB) stored at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

Background preferred: data science or astronomy.
Main supervisor: Dr. Hadrien Devillepoix

Asteroid Impacts on Earth and Mars

How much material is bombarding the Earth on a daily basis, and from where? The GFO dataset contains the largest and most complete record of the number, sizes, and orbits of material hitting our planet. What else are we seeing? This project will mine big data from the GFO datasets, and explore the objects detected to answer the fundamental question: how often do we get impacted? This will place a critical constraint on the impact hazard to the world’s population. These data can also be used to model the amount of material into the inner solar system in general. How much material might be expected on the Moon, or even Mars? This specific project may be more suited to a background in astronomy, physics, data science, computer science, or planetary science, though we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.

Background preferred: astronomy, physics, statistics.
Main supervisor: Dr. Eleanor Sansom

Meteorite recovery and investigation

The Desert Fireball Network (DFN), operated by Curtin consists of a large array of astronomical cameras in the outback to recover fresh meteorites with orbits, by observing falls, and then searching for the fall. Searching for meteorite falls in the remote outback is a costly activity, traditionally done with teams of people camped on site, searching the area on foot. Recently SSTC has been developing a drone-based approach, using machine learning to identify meteorites in aerial imagery. This project will continue this development, using the drone in the field, enhancing it as needed, to recover fresh meteorites from the DFN. Further to this, these recovered meteorites need classification, followed by detailed study, and several meteorites have already been recovered. Fresh unweathered meteorites with orbits are a unique resource, and the study of their formation and chemistry in coordination with modelling of their orbital evolution can provide detailed new insights about the early solar system.

Background preferred: Engineering, Physics, and Software OR Earth Science and Geochemistry
Main supervisor: Dr. Martin Towner
5 projects

Depending on your interest, we likely have a project for you. The specific projects above may be more suited to the backgrounds listed, but we will consider applications from other backgrounds if suitable.
For PhD project, the Australian Government Research Training Program (RTP) Scholarships will be next available to apply in mid 2022, with projects starting end 2022/early 2023. We want to start the conversation with you today. Email the primary supervisor listed or have a look through our Research projects page to start talking science.

Background on the research environment

Planetary science involves the study of solar system formation and evolution, the geology of planets and their atmospheres, asteroid impacts and dynamics. Fundamentally, it is the study of how a nebula of dust and gas can evolve to a planetary system, and generate planets capable of supporting life. It pulls together multiple fields, pure and applied, including engineering.

Curtin University has the largest planetary science research program in Australia, inclusive of the Desert Fireball Network, and is looking to expand this vibrant and diverse team with new PhD students.

The Space Science and Technology Centre has pioneered the development of large networked facilities using hardened autonomous observatories. The Desert Fireball Network (DFN) has 50 autonomous stations across Australia. It has been observing ~2.5 million km2 of Australian skies since 2015. It provides a spatial context for meteorites – we can track a rock back to where it originated in the solar system, and forward to where it lands, for recovery by a field party. The database of >1400 meteoroid orbits is larger than the combined literature dataset for >70 years of observation, providing a unique window into the distribution of debris in the inner solar system. With 14 international partners, and facilitated by NASA, the project has recently expanded to a global facility. The Global Fireball Observatory (GFO) will cover x5 the observing area of the DFN, able to track debris entering our atmosphere 24 hours a day. These networks informed the development of a satellite tracking network – FireOPAL – with Lockheed Martin. Although designed for satellite observations, FireOPAL also happens to be a world-class astronomical transient observatory. The DFN, GFO, and FireOPAL are helping us answer fundamental questions in planetary science and astronomy. If you would like to be part of this team, and work with colleagues in universities around the world, at NASA, and in industry, read on.